Mini-marshmallow and toothpick building challenge for kids

Jan 25, 2015

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In this activity, children are invited to learn more about gravity, engineering and architecture in a fun and hands-on way.

dubai getaway

I'm not generally one to take pictures of buildings. Sure, I admire certain made-made structures but I've never felt compelled to take multiple pictures of non-historic buildings. Until I went to Dubai, that is. 

When I asked my family living in Dubai, "Why should families visit Dubai?" and one of the answers on the list was, "Architecture (Dubai has a mix of both Arabic and modern contemporary buildings which creates a unique and interesting landscape)," they weren't wrong. Out of the desert pops this quite amazing spectacle. I had never seen buildings like them. They appeared to rise out of the ground, often so tall that they looked like they were on a lean (perhaps some were?). A new shape and design around every corner. Everywhere that we drove I found myself constantly going, "Wow, look at that one!", "Woah! Check that out." and scrambling to take a photo before we drove on. You can see some great views of Dubai from the air in my earlier post.

When I got home, my kids thought the buildings looked fabulous. Going through photos together brought up all sorts of questions and discussions. Opportunities for learning.

How do they make the buildings stay up? Why don't they fall over? How do they get them so high? How did they make it that shape?

The Burj Khalifa. The tallest building in the world.

Building challenge for kids.

To help us find some of the answers to the questions, I set out a classic and simple construction activity with just two types of materials, toothpicks and mini-marshmallows.

We chatted about how being an architect means that you design, plan and oversee the construction of buildings. It is a very important job that requires a lot of study in order to be able to do it properly. Architecture is both an art and a science. It is the job of an architect to use their creativity to design something that looks a certain way and performs certain functions, as well as knowledge of scientific principles and mathematical expertise, to ensure that the structure stays up!

Engineers are also very important in the construction of buildings. They use maths and science to come up with solutions to problems that might arise with the construction of a building. They often need to overcome problems with new solutions that have never been done before, to help realise the dreams of the architect and client. They also need to be able to think creatively.

These days a great amount of technology is used in the design and construction of buildings. Here, we were getting back to basics and testing out simple structures. Seeing if we could work against gravity (that force that is always pulling things back to earth), and engineer a building that would stay standing without any assistance other than the arrangement of mini-marshmallows and toothpicks.

Relishing in the beauty of a structure and in symmetry that often occurs in buildings.
Discussing plans.
Using photos for inspiration and to lead discussion.
"I think you should make this one"
Testing ideas.
Problem solving.
Whilst younger children (my son had recently turned 3 here) might not be capable of building free-standing structures, this is great for their fine-motor skills and for testing and experimenting.
Sorting and counting. Playing allows for unplanned learning to occur naturally.
Children learn naturally about 3-dimensional shapes and some of their uses whilst building in this way.
Engineering some support beams to prevent the structure from falling.

Handy Tips:

To extend this activity children could be challenged to:
  • First play the architect and draftsman role in the construction of a building by drawing up plans.
  • See how high they can get a single structure to stand unassisted
  • Test their construction against certain natural phenomenon. Can it survive winds (a fan) or an earthquake (shaking the table)?
  • Build a structure entirely of cubes

- To simplify this activity, younger children might find using larger, stronger materials easier for their developing fine-motor skills. Try regular sized marshmallows and paddle-pop sticks instead and let them experiment with sticking them together and seeing how gravity works.

- Instead of marshmallows to hold the construction together you could use gum-drops or blu-tack. Instead of the toothpicks you could try straws or sticks. Here we tried building with cotton-buds and playdough with similar results. There are plenty of different combinations of materials that you could try.

Happy playing,
Debs :)

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